Past Presidents’ Perspectives: Professor Joy Damousi

In our second Past Presidents’ Perspectives article, the Academy’s Immediate Past President Professor Joy Damousi reflects on the influences that led her to a career in the humanities, as well as her time as President and the biggest challenges the Academy faced.

Photo of Joy DamousiThe early years

Proudly Melbourne born and bred, Joy developed a great passion for history from a very young age. As the daughter of Greek post-war immigrants, stories about where her family had come from, and the history of past events were an all-pervasive presence while Joy was growing up.

“So, by the time I was in primary school, I loved piecing together projects about history,” says Joy. “I was also an avid stamp collector, and that took me to finding out about the history of countries and the people on my cherished stamps.”

“That excitement of discovering new stories from the past and trying to understand and make sense of them has never left me.”

Joy’s love of stories almost led her to a life in the media, admitting journalism was always on her radar as a possible career path.

“In fact, I’d been keen on pursuing it right throughout my undergraduate degree, until I was offered a scholarship to do a PhD. I’ve never looked back,” Joy reflects.

Life in the Academy

Joy says she felt “overwhelmed” when she was elected to the Academy in 2004.

“It was a huge honour and I felt enormously privileged to be elected as a Fellow.”

In 2017, Joy was “extremely humbled” to be elected as the third female President of the Academy, cementing her position as one of the leading women in the Australian research sector.

Joy describes the greatest challenge during her three-year Presidency as “convincing government and policymakers of the value of the humanities and its importance to society. I’ve always believed the Academy has a leading role to play in shaping public debate, contributing to public policy, and informing opinion on the vital role of the humanities in Australia. I’ve always believed the Academy has and should play this role.”

“Within the Academy, the push for greater diversity among the Fellows – especially in relation to Indigenous scholars – was a major step which I believe is a significant one.”

“The hugely important Future Humanities Workforce project will contribute to wider discussions about the humanities workforce, which is a good thing.”

Joy says she is also particularly proud of the role the Academy played in developing a new voice in the arts and creative arts through incubating A New Approach: “this was a major intervention the Academy made in this important public debate.”

The humanities future

During her term as President, Joy was outspoken on many fronts.  She spoke publicly about Australia’s inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and our unwillingness to recognise the distinctive rights that Indigenous Australians hold as the original people of this land.

However, it was the systematic threats to the humanities discipline itself, felt across all levels of education and research, that dominated Joy’s final year as President.

Joy explains the nature of the threat was two-fold, requiring different approaches:

“First, survival in the higher education sector at a time when humanities programs are contracting or disappearing altogether. Second, dealing with a hostile government that has eroded humanities programs.

“On the first: convincing universities of the need to retain humanities programs. On the second: publicly lobbying for the recognition of humanities education through various channels.”

One of Joy’s greatest frustrations is the misguided belief that disciplines other than the humanities can resolve some of the most pressing social, economic, cultural and environmental issues currently facing Australia and the world.

“No problem of today can be adequately addressed or tackled without a humanities perspective,” she argues. “Without an understanding of the aspects that humanities disciplines offer, there will be little traction on contemporary problems.”

Biggest influences

In her early years, Joy’s mother and her storytelling of life in Greece and Europe in the middle of the last century had an enormous influence.

As an academic, Joy says there’s no one person, but many, who have shaped her career.

“I’ve admired many of my mentors who have been outstanding scholars, as well as generous, kind and unfailingly supportive of my work and endeavours, and those of others.”

Joy’s COVID-19 moment

Melbourne-based, Joy was amongst the millions caught up in Victoria’s long COVID-19 lockdown last year. And like many of us, she turned to literature and quality programs to help stay sane when not involved in Zoom and Teams meetings.

“I’ve been inspired by White Russians, Red Peril: A Cold War History of Migration to Australia by Sheila Fitzpatrick which I would highly recommend. Of all the programs I’ve seen while in lockdown this past year, nothing has yet to surpass the crime thriller, Babylon Berlin, and I’d very much recommend this extraordinary series.”

About Joy Damousi

Professor Damousi is a historian and Director of the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University. She was President of the Academy from 2017-2020.

About the Past President’s Perspective series

The ongoing series is a chance to cast our minds back, learn valuable lessons from our past, weigh up the current state of the humanities, and consider how, as a collective, we can address some of the biggest challenges of the future.

The first article in the series was with leading Australian musicologist Emeritus Professor Malcolm Gillies AM FAHA, who was President of the Academy from 1998-2001. Read the story

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.